An Afghanistan Strategy for Trump

April 16, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: AfghanistanStrategyDonald TrumpDavid Petraeus

An Afghanistan Strategy for Trump

The Trump administration's Afghanistan strategy should take into account that the international situation is more dangerous than ever.

Economic and Development Pillar

The Afghan economy suffered a severe shock when most foreign forces and aid personnel departed. Several hundred thousand jobs were lost, and GDP growth dropped to under 2 percent. The government responded relatively well, with good macroeconomic policies and improved revenue collection and budget management. But Afghanistan will be dependent of foreign aid until 2030, according to the World Bank. Still, scores of international donors were impressed enough with the government’s performance and reform plans that they pledged over $15 billion in aid last October to cover the next four years. The basic idea is that the government will work on developing a viable economy so that international aid can be reduced and that aid will be tied to performance benchmarks for the Afghan government. Key will be developing private-sector investment and focusing on the most promising sectors: oil/gas/mining, agriculture and light industry, while investing in infrastructure and educating youth to support economic growth. The U.S. policy review can identify which development and governance programs are producing good results toward these ends, and which ones should be curtailed. This is not about nation-building; it is about recognizing that the Afghan government must produce sufficient results to be viewed as legitimate. Sizable U.S. civilian programs are still vital.

Two key points: 1) the U.S. review should consider if there are ways for civilian staff to accept some additional risk so that they can work and travel with reasonable security in order to support aid programs and better assess their effectiveness, rather than being confined to the U.S. embassy; 2) the Afghan government needs support from donors to stimulate to the private-sector economy and to start creating jobs, even while developing Afghanistan’s resources and potential over the medium term. The unemployment rate in Afghanistan is estimated at 40 percent, and the challenges are growing. About 48 percent of Afghans are below the age of fifteen and more than 20 percent of the adult population are between fifteen and twenty-four. Unemployed young men are a recipe for trouble.

Reconciliation and Regional Pillar

The new U.S. strategy will need to conceptualize how to create a regional environment more supportive of Afghan partners and which promotes an end to the fighting. There is widespread agreement that Pakistan’s role is vital, and that it has largely been negative because of Pakistan’s direct or indirect support for the Taliban. A number of U.S. observers argue that until Pakistan and the Taliban conclude that the battlefield momentum has shifted decisively against their interests, the prospects for a negotiated peace process will remain dim. Some argue that Pakistan must be pressured to play a less nefarious role. The United States has tried for years to encourage Pakistan to stop allowing Taliban leaders, financiers and fighters to have sanctuary inside its borders. How to handle Pakistan will likely be one of the most challenging issues in the strategic review. The range of options proposed will likely include imposing sanctions and reducing military assistance, but some will likely argue in favor of persuasion, given U.S. dependence on Pakistan for access to Afghanistan. However, the policy review offers the new administration the opportunity to take a fresh look at a tougher approach toward Pakistan.

Also, there tree issues surrounding how to foment reconciliation when the situation becomes more favorable. And what will the role of a U.S. envoy, or perhaps a third-party envoy, be in the long run? The mantra, wisely, is that the Afghans need to lead any reconciliation or peace process. In the near term, advancing reform and effective performance by the Afghan government and security forces will be a priority. But there is an important role for a U.S. envoy to work at changing the strategic calculus of regional actors about the benefits of ending the conflict and to explore quietly any opportunities that arise. Beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan, this would entail engaging Russia, India, China, Afghanistan’s central Asian neighbors, the United States’ European and Asian partners, the UN and, in some way, Iran.

Some believe a third-party envoy, perhaps tied to the UN, could be helpful in pursuing opportunities for reconciliation. And there will be other important questions to address along the way–e.g., should the United States develop its own preferences for any peace agreement, or should it encourage the Afghan government to grapple with tough issues that otherwise might not be addressed? There are also regional economic initiatives, including trans-Afghanistan energy and trade corridors, that the United States could use to encourage to build momentum for a peaceful solution.

Given the importance of American investments in Afghanistan, and the terrorist groups still operating there, a fresh look at the U.S. strategy and vision is invaluable. The policy review should re-anchor America’s approach and role in the strategic country for at least the next four years.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005–2007 and has returned frequently to the country since. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, but his views are strictly his own.

General David Petraeus (U.S. Army, retired) commanded coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded U.S. Central Command and was director of the CIA. He is a now a partner in the global investment firm KKR and is Chairman of the KKR Global Institute. He is also a Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

Earl Anthony Wayne (career ambassador, retired) is a former U.S. Ambassador and assistant secretary of state. He served in senior positions at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2009–11. He is currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a senior non-resident advisor at CSIS and the Atlantic Council.

Image: Cpl. Anthony Patris provides security from the rooftop of the Nawa District Governance Center, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on October 28, 2010. ​U.S. Department of Defense Flickr / Sgt. Mark Fayloga​.

This story has been updated to reflect current events.